Sniper Shootings Psychology

As Washington, D.C., area residents try to conduct their everyday lives under a blanket of fear, they might feel as if the Beltway sniper must be mentally deranged for terrorizing innocent people.

Psychiatrists say the culprit could be a meticulous narcissist who enjoys playing God.

As investigators work with inconsistent eyewitness descriptions of the sniper, and the Bush administration considers the possibility that terrorists could be behind the slayings, psychologists say the shooter is likely a narcissist who doesn't experience any empathy for his victims.

‘Control Killer’

If the suburban shootings turn out to be the work of a non-terrorist serial killer, the shooter is probably a "control killer," said Alexander E. Obolsky, a forensic psychiatrist at the Health and Law Resource in Chicago.

Obolsky says the shooter probably spent significant time planning these crimes in order to get an emotional high.

"When the sniper is getting ready to shoot, he is playing God," Obolsky said. "He is looking at his target, a woman or a man, and saying 'Am I going to let you live today or will you die today?' That makes him feel good."

Jeffrery Smalldon, a forensic psychologist who interviewed convicted Ohio sniper Thomas Lee Dillon, and other serial killers, said it's hard for innocent people to understand what makes serial killers tick.

Dillon, the deer hunter who went on to shoot and kill five people between 1989 and 1992, seemed to believe he was someone who should be accorded some special significance, Smalldon said.

"I think he was very bored with his life," Smalldon said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America Wednesday. "He was someone who believed that society wasn't really recognizing him in the way he felt certain he deserved to be recognized," Smalldon said.

Crazy or Self-Absorbed?

Smalldon said Dillon was not crazy by any legal definition. The psychologist said he concluded Dillon had severe personality disorders and was highly narcissistic. Obolsky says the the D.C.-area sniper could have those same disorders.

"The person, or persons if the sniper has a partner, is crazy only in the sense that he does not care about people the way typical people do," Obolsky said. "There is another word for it — evil."

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Neal Dunsieth, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, says he doesn't think the recent sniper shootings are linked to someone who is emotionally disturbed in any severe way. "The sniper might have some particular personality traits or be predisposed to strange beliefs, but I haven't seen a lot that points to a mental illness," he said

Dunsieth says he doesn't believe the Beltway sniper is someone who is lashing out over a recent traumatic event, such as a firing from a job or a break-up. "This doesn't seem like a crime of passion, it's almost like a military operation," he said.

When it comes to the tarot card, found by police during the investigation of last week's sniper shooting of a 13-year-old schoolboy in Bowie, Md., Dunsieth says it could be interpreted as a message.

"The sniper could be trying to say 'I have the ability to change the social order,'" Dunsieth said.

Investigators are not sure whether only one or more people — perhaps a shooter with a getaway driver — are involved in the attacks.

Who Is It?

Inconsistent descriptions of the person who killed the latest sniper victim outside a Home Depot store in Virginia Monday night have left investigators unable to come up with a sketch of a suspect. All of the eyewitnesses do agree that the shooter is a man, police said.

Obolsky says the man doing the shooting is probably a loner, with no true relationships. "I would be surprised if this man was socially connected in the sense that he has family and work, although it's possible that he is able to blend into his surroundings," Obolsky said.

The shootings began in Montgomery County, Md., and then spread to Washington and suburban Virginia. All the victims were shot with high-powered weapons and .223-caliber bullets. As far as police can tell, none of them knew each other or were linked in any way.

All 11 sniper victims — nine killed and two wounded — since the shootings started Oct. 2, were gunned down while performing everyday tasks such as filling their gas tank, loading groceries in a vehicle and going to school.

Bush administration officials monitoring the case said that until evidence surfaced to the contrary, domestic or international terrorism could not be ruled out.